It was a shocker of a night; I was wet and woozy, disoriented to the point of being dumb. All I knew was that a diminutive Chinese man was gesturing that I should follow him down a rather dark and threatening alley. In a trance-like state I did as I was told.
Maybe it was the long plane journey to Beijing. Maybe it was the fact that following the long plane journey we barely had time to put down our cases before being whisked away on a tour of the Summer Palace. Maybe it was a full blown assault on the senses of actually being in China; a place that to me had always seemed full of mystery and even danger. Maybe it was the smoked eel for breakfast or the Chinese wine passed around the restaurant by a rich Chinese businessman after China had just scored in a World Cup qualifying match (I registered that he was a rich businessman because the wine he was so cavalierly offering everyone was £80 a bottle). Maybe, maybe, maybe…
All I knew was that as I side-stepped puddles reflecting neon Chinese characters, I’d somehow left the comfort of the 21st century and been transported onto the pages of a Sam Spade novel. I felt as though I should have been wearing a rain mac, sporting a fedora and have a cigarette clamped between my teeth.
A ghostly white figure holding a black umbrella waited for us at the end of the alley. As I approached he smiled and held the umbrella over my head. My diminutive escort motioned I should go with the man in white. We turned a corner into another dark alley before emerging into an open space and the sight of a line of pristinely white figures all holding umbrellas. They snaked across a long, narrow pontooned jetty all the way to a squat four story floating hotel. The sight of the Yangtse riverboat sent a surge of excitement through my veins. There was no modern port, no evidence that we were near the Yangtse River at all, just the darkly anonymous river bank and lines upon lines of pontoon jetties.
There was something thrillingly old fashioned and quite surreal about joining a ship in this manner. Each of the ship’s officers smiled as I made my way along the pontoon until I was inside my floating home for the next few days. It was late and I was dog-tired. The exploration could wait until I was fresh and full of eager beaver enthusiasm the following morning. I hardly registered the cabin as my head hit the pillow. What seemed like seconds later, I entered a weird dreamy state where tiny birds twittered to the sound of hypnotically jaunty Chinese music.
It wasn’t a dream and it wasn’t a few seconds but a few hours. The music kept getting louder and louder – it was the ship’s wake up call. It was 7am. The music went from being amusingly quirky to being nightmarishly never-ending…and there was no off button.
They don’t tell you about that in the brochure. I buried my head in the pillow but the music kept getting louder and louder. I was still shattered and now more disoriented than ever..but it didn’t matter. It was damned annoying but also wonderfully bizarre. So far just about everything had wrong-footed me since my arrival in China; it was exceeding all my expectations.